Monday, 21 September 2009

The Beatles: a brief (and perhaps final) threnody

Ask yourself this rhetorical question: if Prime Ministers now have to present themselves as if they were pop stars (and they do) and if an Old Etonian can do that better and more successfully than any of the contenders from much more traditionally "pop" backgrounds (and he can), then what does that say about what pop is today?

The most bitterly chiding and ultimately dispiriting (because I loved pop as an apparently egalitarian force, too) effect of hearing the early Beatles today - I think I can safely say this now that most of the remaster dust has settled - is that they were the sound of a precise moment when it seemed as though pop's power was actively forcing Old Etonians out of office, laughing at them, humiliating them to such an extent that they could never return again. The first few albums are the authentic sound of pop as a genuinely egalitarian movement. Now that pop is so definitively a means of shoring up elite control - both in the form of Coldplay at Wembley (whoever may support them, as a desperate attempt to cover their tracks, to disguise themselves) and in the form of the global power elite, the latter a force which simply didn't exist in the same way when Beatlemania hit - they have the heartbreaking power of defeated pioneers. It's hard to listen to that joy - in terms of sheer feeling, British pop has rarely come near "There's a Place" since - without feeling deeply depressed afterwards, and when you buy the Beatles in 2009 you're effectively buying that memory, a means of distraction from all the machinations of power around you. At the time of the last great Beatles repromotion, there were hopes - however vainglorious - that pop might again lead a movement towards greater equality of opportunity. Now we can see that for the myth it was, and that - combined with the simple passing of time - must be the main reason there has been that much less fuss this time. Every promise is discredited.

Of course, pop can still be great on the strict level of redemptive, glorious, unifying popular art. This year it's thrilled me more than it has for just about a decade, the year of Guetta gone global ("I Gotta Feeling", world-reuniting force that it is, has kept me going several times these last months) and grime gone pop and Kanye gone Euro and, perhaps greatest of all, Jay-Z gone universal. But when it's over and you know the unification is only on one level, you feel deeply frustrated, angry that its brilliance cannot be something more - and you also fear that it's only been able to happen because those who have done so much to wreck British pop in the last decade have abandoned it as a triviality now they are on the brink of greater power. In a bigger world, when what happened within one country on its own terms mattered far more, the Beatles must have convinced many that they could be that something more. Yet, as we now know, the world which had made them was as good as it was going to get in terms of equality of opportunity, and it's our knowledge of this fact which chides and taunts us when we hear the Beatles now: the sense that flows out of those records that they genuinely believed that when the post-war order fell it would be replaced by a utopia of artistic flowerings and social reconciliation. The Beatles' relationship to the post-war settlement is surely the most interesting thing about them now: quite simply, they could not have existed without it - because it was only then that there was sufficient security and a strong enough safety net for them to thrive: the Beatles were made possible by the existence of public spaces, and the sense of consciousness they expressed in their later years had more in common with earlier collectivism than with rock's ultimate privatisation of the mind, the latter always much more enthusiastically purveyed by the Stones (the real North/South divide 'twixt those two bands: Beatles collectivist, Stones individualist?) - yet, with the exception of McCartney, they never seemed at ease with it, always longing for some mythical fulfilment beyond, a land that could never have come into being in part because of their own impact (which, through no fault of their own, led the world in an infinitely more aggressive-individualist direction than they'd have wanted).

I need not, of course, mention the specific moment which rankles the most, the song on which a supposed exponent of togetherness and universal love objects with the arrogance of a five-year-old to the very idea that he might give some of his vast fortune so as to ensure that there are options and escape routes for those who might want to come up the same way, through whichever means. McCartney could never have written that, and while he may have become the embodiment of many of modern England's worst traits - studied, now unnatural "Englishness" combined with a child's gratitude to the USA - he should still be recognised as the only Beatle who recognised that the post-war state was doing much good for people who came from where they came from, and should not be thrown away in the vain hope of a mythical Utopia beyond (which is what I like to think he's getting at in "Goodnight Tonight", which was in the Top 10 on 3rd May 1979). I recall the unequivocal anti-Thatcher statements he made on Saturday morning children's TV when he released "All My Trials" just after she had fallen, and that is how I want him remembered. What did ultimately mutate into a stultifying cosiness was at least rooted in an awareness of the multiple edges on which Britain was placed ultimately greater than Lennon, for all his harsh and often accurate (but crucially, never wholly thought-out) cynicism about the world surrounding him, truly understood (and McCartney did, in 1980, briefly grasp British pop's sadly fleeting continental drift).

If the Beatles are tainted for me it is because of the passing of time, not (apart from isolated cases such as, you know, the song Paul Weller ripped off) what they actually tried to do themselves. I would happily concede that the way the organ flows back at 2'23 on "The Clarietta Rag" by Kevin Ayers affects me more than many/most of the Beatles tenets I grew up with. But, as I said, that isn't the Beatles' fault, most of the time. One thing is for sure: the remasters offer no way back into pop, or any sort of future for it. If anything, they ought to be a way out. As the 45-year loop of comparative egalitarianism in power is about to close, so is the loop of their model of pop about to close for good - in reality, it slammed shut years ago, probably before 1995, even. There are other ways, and those are the only valid ways. The Beatles remasters seem as much the utopianism of former times as anything from William Morris, or the birth of the Fabian Society. And maybe that's why, however great they are, I'm more likely to fill out each day of my terminal existence with "Shooting at the Moon", and conclude each day - and, momentarily, hold my head high again - with "Run This Town". Between them, they seem to offer a much less tainted past and future. But, like I said, don't blame the Beatles. Blame time.


  1. Thank you for your interesting perspective about the Beatles and the time they lived in (well, most active in).

    Especially for your words about Paul McCartney.

    Most of the Beatles songs which affect me are from later on, except maybe for Norwegian Wood and Eleanor Rigby.

  2. Excellent piece, Robin.

    The "A Hard Day's Night" film has the sense you are talking about; a Britain opening up... and it is McCartney who politicises the band's mockery of the stilted, establishment-cipher commuter type: "Up the workers!"

    "Sorry we hurt your field, mister!" - another astonishingly powerful sequence, where after an epiphanic, jubilant "Can't Buy Me Love", they are accosted by the landowner of the field they have been playing on...

  3. Yes. In many ways that film opens the loop - of Britain, of pop - that 'Radio On' closes, which is precisely why it's so hard to watch today, now the Beatles have been so thoroughly misappropriated by the forces of neoliberalism (I'm about to bring this into another post, many will say thankfully briefer than the one above, but they were an essential part of the Blairite con-trick in 95/6: horrific to remember also that, on uk.politics.misc circa 2002, Jackkincaid - the arch exponent of "we have to bomb Iraq because rock'n'roll inspired a generation" pseudo-politics - specifically cited *that* sequence with Richard Vernon).

  4. also, re. McCartney in 1978/79: I'll always see "With a Little Luck" as him saying "if we try hard enough, we can keep Butskellism going for *another* third of a century". That's a whole subgenre in itself: 1978 AOR-pop which speaks in terms of togetherness within collectivism: "Follow You, Follow Me" obviously, Rafferty's "Right Down the Line" and "Mattie's Rag" ...